Editor’s Comments: Less Money, Taller Plants

Oct. 29, 2011

Funding is a fickle thing: While some states are figuring out how to spend federal stimulus money they weren’t necessarily expecting, others-and in some cases, departments within those same states-are struggling to cope with budget shortfalls. And some of the cutbacks they’re making are more visible to the public than others.

Several states have recently cut back on mowing and otherwise grooming their roadside vegetation. Many state highway and transportation departments depend on gasoline taxes to make up a good part of their budgets, and for a couple of reasons, there is less money coming in. First, people are simply driving less. Second, more of them are switching to hybrid vehicles and fuel-efficient cars. While both of these developments are good for the environment, they have the unintended result of shrinking the funding available to maintain the roads on which people are spending less time.

It’s not only the recent budget cuts that have affected the way roadside vegetation management is handled, however. Some states, like Wisconsin, opted decades ago to embrace a “natural” rather than a manicured look, and many of them have steadily been planting native prairie grasses and wildflowers rather than higher-maintenance species. Six years ago, Iowa eliminated roadside mowing altogether except for the purposes of controlling noxious weeds and ensuring safety. Some within the industry think these are good trends-requiring less time, less money, less fuel spent on mowing, and less time that crews must spend working in potentially hazardous high-traffic areas.

Of course, safety is always an issue: Where driver visibility could be affected, regular mowing and pruning is still a necessity. But in other places, weeds and scraggly plants are becoming a more common sight. On its rural highways, Kentucky will have three mowing cycles this year rather than its usual four. The Virginia Department of Transportation expects to save $20 million by cutting its mowing schedule in half. Although critical safety areas will still be groomed regularly, the full width of medians and rights of way will be mowed only once every four years, down from multiple times per year.

Delaware also recently announced cutbacks in mowing, although the state DOT sends crews out to deal with safety-related complaints. But complaints about roads’ shaggy appearance or overgrown shoulders won’t necessarily get the same response.

What’s your state’s policy-and have you noticed any difference in how the roads are looking lately? Will the latest cutbacks lead to a trend toward lower-maintenance plantings in more parts of the country? And, in your opinion, is that a step in the right direction? Share your thoughts on the issue.

About the Author

Janice Kaspersen

Janice Kaspersen is the former editor of Erosion Control and Stormwater magazines.